The power of suggestion

You will have heard of the notion of “self-fulfilling prophecy”; that is, you expect something to happen so it does. It is an idea encapsulated in the upended phrase “you’ll see it when you believe it”. The unspoken element of this however, is where do the beliefs that you operate on originate from? Often they are generated by suggestion from others and a new paper has suggested that sometimes that suggestion is deliberate but it can also be completely unconscious.

The authors of the paper come from the Victoria University of Wellington and Harvard Medical School. They have been studying the nature and effects of suggestion on human behaviour and have concluded that the impacts of suggestion are far-reaching and often hidden.

The effect of suggestion comes from a phenomenon known as “response expectancy”; the way that you anticipate your response in certain situations. The essence of this is that once you anticipate that a specific outcome will occur, because it has been “suggested” by some source, then your subsequent thoughts and behaviours will actually help to cause that outcome to occur. This is self-fulfilling prophecy in action.

So for instance, if you expect that a glass or two of wine will loosen you up at a party then you will probably feel less inhibited, approach more people, and be involved in more conversations. You might think it was the wine but it was largely your expectation of how the wine would make you feel that changed your behaviour. Imagine how different the scenario would be if your expectation was that wine would make you morose and self-absorbed.

However, the implications of the power of suggestion and expectation far beyond simple social settings and have serious consequences.

The authors point out that research tells us that unintentional suggestion can play a serious role in the legal system and medical trials. For example, false identification from police line-ups is significantly higher when the people conducting the line-up know who the suspect is than when the line-up is conducted by people who are unaware who the suspect is. In medicine, or science, a researcher who knows what the expected outcome of a study is might unwittingly suggest that to the participants and this might be a large part of the placebo effect.

The question in medical terms then becomes: does it matter whether the pill or the patient’s mind is achieving the cure?

It’s all a bit of a maze but it does confirm the real and significant effect of your expectations and how those expectations are derived from overt and subtle suggestion. That being the case, grasp your rabbit’s foot, your four leaf clover and your lucky crystal and hold onto them because today is going to be a wonderful day.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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